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Deadly hurricane Irma flattens Caribbean islands

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Hurricane Irma has caused widespread destruction across the Caribbean, reducing buildings to rubble and leaving at least nine people dead.

The small island of Barbuda is said to be “barely habitable”. Officials warn that St Martin is almost destroyed, and the death toll is likely to rise.

Irma, a category five hurricane, the highest possible level, is passing north of Puerto Rico.

Two other storms have strengthened to become hurricanes.

More than half of the island’s three million residents were without power as Irma caused heavy downpours and strong winds. Officials have said that power could be cut off for several days.

The most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade had wind speeds of 295km/h (185mph) and was expected to pass near or just north of the coast of the Dominican Republic on Thursday.

Hurricane Irma first hit the dual-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. At least one death, of a child, was reported on Barbuda, where Prime Minister Gaston Browne said about 95% of the buildings had suffered some damage.

“It’s absolute devastation,” he said after flying over the island, home to some 1,600 people. “The island is literally under water. In fact, I’m of the view that, as it stands now, Barbuda is barely habitable.”

He told the BBC that 50% of the Barbuda population were now homeless and that it would cost $100m to rebuild the island.

However, Antigua, with a population of 80,000, escaped major damage, with no loss of life, he said earlier.

Officials have confirmed at least eight deaths and considerable damage in the French territories of St-Martin and Saint Barthélemy, popularly known as St Barts.

“It’s an enormous catastrophe – 95% of the island is destroyed,” top local official Daniel Gibbs was quoted as saying.

Significant damage was also reported in the Dutch section of St Martin, known as Sint-Maarten.

Sint-Maarten’s airport, the third largest in the Caribbean, has been destroyed.

The Dutch defence ministry said: “The picture is of many uprooted trees, houses without roofs and pleasure boats on land.”

The Dutch navy has sent two ships from nearby Aruba and Curacao to assist locals, according to media in the Netherlands.

Anguilla, a British overseas territory, was also caught in the hurricane.

One resident told the BBC the island looked as if it had been struck by a nuclear bomb, with roofs torn off many of the main buildings, including the hospital.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Facebook that he had spoken with its chief minister.

“My thoughts are with all those affected and the UK is taking swift action to respond. We have staff and a British naval ship ready to help those in need,” he said.

US President Donald Trump said he and his aides were monitoring Irma’s progress. “But it looks like it could be something that will be not good. Believe me, not good,” he told reporters at the White House.

Projections suggest it could hit the state of Florida on Sunday.

Officials started evacuations of tourists and residents of Florida Keys, a resort archipelago.

Flights to and from several airports in Florida were being suspended, while Orlando’s international airport said that commercial flights would stop from 17:00 local time on Saturday.

A state of emergency had been declared for Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, mobilising federal disaster relief efforts.

Islands that have been hit by Irma

Antigua and Barbuda

  • Population: 90,800
  • Key facts: one of the Caribbean’s most prosperous nations, thanks to its tourism industry and offshore financial services
  • Hurricane report: Antigua reportedly escaped major damage, with no loss of life, but some 95% of structures on Barbuda were damaged or destroyed, the prime minister says, confirming at least one death

St Martin

  • Population: 75,000
  • Key facts: tourist destination celebrated for its beaches; divided between France, which calls its section Saint Martin, and the Netherlands, which calls its part Sint-Maarten
  • Hurricane report: at least six people reported killed in St Martin, according to the French interior minister. There has been serious damage to buildings, flooding, power cuts

St Barts (Saint Barthélemy)

  • Population: 9,200
  • Key facts: luxury tourist destination
  • Hurricane report: two reported killed; serious damage to buildings, flooding, power cuts

Anguilla

  • Population 13,500
  • Key facts: British overseas territory and upmarket tourist destination
  • Hurricane report: damage to buildings; extent as yet unknown

British Virgin Islands

  • Population: 20,600
  • Key facts: more than 40 islands and islets
  • Hurricane report: Irma passed over the northern islands

Puerto Rico

  • Population: 3.7 million
  • Key facts: a tourist destination but plagued by debt, poverty and high unemployment
  • Hurricane report: Irma passed close by; wide-spread power cuts; extent of damage not yet known

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